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As TikTok becomes a search engine, big ticket retailers, including car dealerships, reap the benefits

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Jesse Cannon-Wallace doesn’t have a TikTok strategy.

Still, Cannon-Wallace, who works as a salesperson at Mercedes Benz of Atlanta Northeast, has been able to amass more than 120,000 followers on the platform via organic posts documenting test drives, how-to tutorials and product features for the dealership’s fleet. 

For Cannon-Wallace, who goes by @benzblogger, TikTok has been a catalyst for boosting brand awareness and thus, car sales — at least anecdotally. Especially as the automotive industry looks toward recovery post-pandemic and inflation.

“I find TikTok is actually bringing me new sales faster than any of the other platforms,” Cannon-Wallace said. (She did not disclose specific sales figures.) “I immediately noticed as my platform grew, I was getting more appointments and getting more clients coming to buy cars.” 

Increasingly, local car dealerships and other brands selling big-ticket items say they’re finding success on TikTok given the app’s low barrier to entry, preference for authentic, organic content and new search functionality. The latter of which has become a bigger focus recently, with advertisers and the platform itself shifting to keep up with young people’s changing online search habits.

“[Consumers], in the past, may have gone to Consumer Reports [to research big purchases],” said Yunilda Esquivel, director of strategy at Laundry Service agency. “Not unsurprisingly, TikTok is a search engine for Gen Z consumers–how to do things, where to find things, especially when it comes to things like travel and discovering new brands.” 

Matt Eldridge, product expert or BMW Genius at BMW Tuscaloosa, Ala., started TikTok-ing last year with an organic approach. Because of TikTok’s reach, he’s been able to get the dealership in front of a broader audience and sold at least four high-end, specialty cars because of it, he said.

It’s a similar story at Lockhart Cadillac, where Jason Fox serves as brand manager, spending a few hours per day managing @lockhartcadillac’s 141,2000 TikTok followers. Per Fox, TikTok presents more opportunities to go viral and reach a broader audience than platforms like Instagram or Facebook, mostly because of its algorithm. 

“We’re always out here trying to crack that code and get our video pushed even further,” Fox said. 

And the amount of time people spend on the app is rising. Insider Intelligence reports U.S. adult users will spend nearly an hour a day on TikTok this year, exceeding its previous forecast of 47 minutes by 18.7%. And where shopper eyeballs are, advertisers are sure to follow. TikTok this year is expected to account for 3.1% of all digital ad spending, up from 2.4% in 2022, also per Insider Intelligence reporting. 

What’s more is TikTok is no longer the Gen Z app. Per Business of Apps, 34.9% of TikTok users range between 18 to 24 years old. Meanwhile, 28.2% of users range from 25 to 34 years old. Meaning, big ticket item retailers have a built in audience, agency executives say.

“As a brand, you know now that the biggest growing segment [on TikTok] is 35-plus,” said Samantha Deevy, partner and head of strategy at Fig agency. “These are the people that obviously have the means to be buying big ticket items.” 

Media buyers and agency executives expect TikTok’s search functionality to become a more mainstream focus later this year to keep up with Gen Z, which is increasingly turning to TikTok to start their online product searches. Already, brands, including the aforementioned car dealership salespeople, are leaning into the new feature to capture a bigger market share of car shoppers. As far as ad dollars are concerned, Google still remains the tried and true search engine, at least for now, advertisers say.

But TikTok has gone from the home of viral dance videos to somewhat of a peer recommendation service, especially with the rise of influencers, agency executives say. Consider #TikTokMadeMeBuyIt, a viral hashtag featuring videos from influencers, brands and users alike showcasing their latest purchases. It represents a fundamental shift, executives say, in the way people shop online, serving as a makeshift peer review function for today’s young shoppers.

In an emailed statement to Digiday, Hillel Hurwitz, founder and CEO of brand strategy and creative agency Bald, said, “Rather than relying on traditional advertising channels like TV commercials or billboards, people are now turning to TikTok to discover and evaluate products.”

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